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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

Can I Canoe You Down the River?

September 15, 2004

“I took a contract to bury the body of Blasphemous Bill McKie,
Whenever, wherever or whatsoever the manner of death he die...”

We had just been spit out of the Devil's Cauldron to drift gently out into the calm green breast of Schwatka Lake, when Rhett Kosowan took a theatrical stance at the head of our vessel and began an inspired recitation of Service's Ballad of Blasphemous Bill. Unfortunately, a big yellow float plane chose that same moment to taxi up the lake to gain room for takeoff so rather than compete our attention, Rhett gave ground... er... water, gracefully. “It's him or me,” he said with a grin. “This-here lake ain't big enough for th' both-a us and he's louder. I'll try again when he's gone.”

As we sat and waited for the plane to complete its turn-around, I marveled again at the sequence of events that found this little group of unlikely adventurers sitting on raft in the middle of a lake, formed some 40 years ago when they harnessed a small portion of the mighty Yukon River.

It all started with a phone call from Tim Pyke. “Help,” he said. “Sure,” I said, agreeably. Then, deciding he might have mistakenly dialed my number instead of 911, I added, hesitantly, “With anything in particular?”

Tim is the owner of Gold Rush Float Tours, a leisurely two-and-a-half hour raft trip down the Yukon River, with a stop at Canyon City to experience a bit of history and pan a little gold before sweeping downhill through fabled Miles Canyon to swirl into the Devil's Cauldron before floating free onto Schwatka. Once each season, he invites a group of seniors to join his crew on this memorable ride, giving back a bit to the pioneers of the community. “Trouble is,” he explained, “I don't have time to get a group together. And that's why I'm calling you. Being an old...older, I mean, lady, and retired, I thought perhaps you might like to take the tour yourself and if you could round up some friends to come along...?”

Though I had recently un-retired myself for a while, I didn't hesitate. “Why, thank you, Tim, I'd love to come” I exclaimed. “And I'll just take your kind offer to the local seniors club and you'll have your band of merry adventurers by the weekend. Just leave it to me.”

In retrospect, my best guess is that I waited until everyone was seated before I began my pitch and that was my first mistake. Heads were tilted courteously in my direction but hands were already reaching for decks of cards and cribbage boards were being placed for easy pegging. Even as I enthusiastically extolled the fun and excitement of the trip, cards were being tossed into the crib and the first fifteen-two's were being added up.

The second error was in surmising that everyone would thrilled to be invited to participate in an adventure on the river that is so much the center of our lives. And in saying so even when experience has proven again and again that intemperate exhortation usually results in having the opposite effect. “What better way to spend an afternoon?” I caroled. “You just GOT to do it.” I watched heads tilt the other way and I knew I'd lost them. “C'mon, you guys,” I blurted, in desperation, “it's very safe. And it's FREE!”

Wellsir, it just never fails to amaze me, the power of the moment over the promise of the future. Cribbage was the name of the game and a raft trip through Miles Canyon did not elicit even a flicker of interest. Except for those crazy kids, Stan and Joyce Fuller and their friend, Lauraine Parkinson, who not only accepted Tim's kind invitation but did so with the dithyrambic delight I'd been trying so hard to generate.

OK, I thought, as I drove over to Riverdale to visit my mother at the Macaulay Lodge, now there are three of us. Where to go to get more? Duh, where indeed? “Nancy,” I called out as I blew into the lobby, “how many Mac residents d'you think would like to go on a raft trip down the Yukon?”

So there we were, one short week later, at the site of the old steam laundry above Canyon City, donning our bright orange personal flotation devices and embarking onto our trusty craft under the watchful eyes of our guides, Rhett Kosowan and Glen Parr. Lame and halt, some of us, with bad knees, worse hips, hands that didn't always work and yesterday's activities completely gone from our ken, but we were all wearing smiles like waves in a slopjar, to quote my old friend Regan, as we made our way up the gangplank and onto the raft. A few wheelchairs were loaded on board for the most unsteady but the rest of us found comfortable seating on benches amidship or down in the sturdy canoes, outriggers that supported the main platform.

It was not a perfect day for a trip downriver. It was overcast and a light rain was falling but it was, as the Scots say, a soft day, warm and misty, and when Rhett stepped barelegged into the river to push the raft out into the current, he assured us that the temperature of the river water was “tolerable.” Later, when we stopped to pan for gold at Canyon City, we discover that the water was not only “tolerable” but pleasantly still tepid from the unusually high temperatures this summer.

The craft, a replica of a stampeder's raft, had a small inboard-outboard motor for power and was steered by long-handled sweeps, fore and aft. Up in front, looking for all the world like a latter-day Huck Finn, bandages on toes, disreputable slouch hat and all, Rhett leaned on his oar and, with nervous apologies to all us old Yukoners who had, he said, in all probability, created of some of it, told the history of the Klondike gold rush. I hastened to assure him that a. none of us were that old and he'd told the story so well that even if we had found discrepancies, we'd enjoyed it too much to complain. Moments after young Huck's dissertation, Glen called out from the back of our vessel that we were approaching Canyon City.

Canyon City was a staging area where stampeders rested and prepared their boats and rafts for the hellish trip through Miles Canyon and the White Horse rapids, a short distance below. Later, when Norman Macaulay built his tramline to portage around the treacherous watercourse and into the settlement of Whitehorse, which had sprung up at the good of the rapids, it became a freight depot.

Normally, passengers on Tim's Tours would disembark here for a short tour of the archeological site. Today, we sat and looked at pictures of the place during a far-busier time and, unlike those who'd gone before and had chewed weevil-y hard tack washed down by copious draughts of river water, we ate chocolate chip cookies and slaked our thirst with tetra-pacs of apple juice. Later, Glen gave us a gold-panning demonstration and those of us who felt the call of the Klondike were each given a panful of gravel salted with a few bits of the real McCoy. After each precious flake was decanted into a tiny tube of water and handed `round to be duly admired, we were once again cast off into the current and on our way.

By now, the soft mist had yielded to an insistent sun and the world around us had taken on new beauty. I thought of a stanza from E. Pauline Johnson's Song My Paddle Sings:

“August is laughing across sky, laughing while paddle, canoe and I,
Drift, drift where the hills uplift, on either side of the current swift.”

The grey-green water, the surface like moiré satin, sparkled and dappled along the edges of the raft, and near the shore, it caught and reflected the first golden tones of approaching autumn.

In front of us and behind, Rhett and Glen manned the sweeps in lazy rhythm while we sat and enjoyed the feast that Tim and nature had provided but soon their movement became more purposeful and energetic and we could see ahead to where the river narrowed and began its drop through the basalt columns that form Miles Canyon. “The river speeds up from six or seven knots to 17 as it plunges through the Canyon,” Glen explained. “It's nothing compared to the velocity before they built the hydro-electric dam at the rapids but it's still a thrilling ri-i-de...”

Both men were working the sweeps with powerful strokes as we plunged into the gorge, past the high black walls and under the bridge where on-lookers watched enviously and cheered our journey. Laughing, we returned their cheers with boisterous waves and calls of our own. Much too soon, we emerged, breathless with excitement and wonder, into the roiling water of a much-tamed Devil's Cauldron to be spit, eventually, out to rock gently on Schwatka's calm green bosom.

The big yellow Cessna finally made its run for liberty, delaying its leap into the air until the very last minute but finally slipping the surly bounds of earth (and water) and making its getaway. As it faded from sight and hearing, Rhett once again took up his stance and made good on his promise to Blasphemous Bill. After that, it was a slow and steady pull for the far shore and the big blue bus.

The smiles and hugs all around were good evidence of a grand adventure, shared on this beautiful day and taken out for re-examination during those times at Macaulay Lodge when bingo and carpet bowling are the most interesting activities on the agenda. “Remember that raft trip? How much gold did you get that day, I think I counted five or six in my little jar... And remember that eagle, as we whipped around in the Cauldron? It just seemed to float out over us...”

Even now, in my mind I can still see the faces of my fellow rafters, beaming with pleasure at the unexpected break in their routine. Remembering brings a smile to my own face and next year, when Tim phones and asks for help, I won't even hesitate. “Sure, Tim,” I'll say. “I'd be delighted to help. And have I got a group for you!”

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